OPIUM WARS PERIOD IN CHINA
The success of the Qing dynasty in maintaining the old order proved a liability when the empire was confronted with growing challenges from seafaring Western powers. The centuries of peace and self-satisfaction dating back to Ming times had encouraged little change in the attitudes of the ruling elite. The imperial Neo-Confucian scholars accepted as axiomatic the cultural superiority of Chinese civilization and the position of the empire at the hub of their perceived world. To question this assumption, to suggest innovation, or to promote the adoption of foreign ideas was viewed as tantamount to heresy. Imperial purges dealt severely with those who deviated from orthodoxy.[Source: The Library of Congress]
When the Qianlong Emperor died at last in February 1799, leaving the kingdom apparently prosperous, but in fact riddled with contradictions and problems that had never been properly solved. China in the 19th century was humiliated and emasculated by colonialism after the Opium Wars, torn apart by rebellions and brought to its knees by famines. Most of the decisive events in 19th century occurred in southern China. The First Opium War (1839-42) took place primarily around Hong Kong and Canton. Shanghai was the center of the foreign occupation. And, the Taiping Rebellion (1851 to 1864) transformed parts of southern China into a brief quasi-utopian state.
Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “At the time these events were perceived [in China] largely as a border skirmish. The Qing emperor was preoccupied with a series of internal rebellions, and his officials were so nervous of passing on the letters the British handed in that he had little idea of what the trouble was about. When hostilities began, repeated accounts of glorious Chinese victories over the barbarians left the emperor in the dark about the real outcome. It was an inglorious episode on both sides, with its roots in an expanding imperial power being rebuffed in its efforts to trade.” [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]
“There was nothing, the Chinese loftily replied to the British emissaries, that China needed or wanted from the west not their goods, not their ideas and certainly not their company. There was plenty that the British wanted to buy from China, though, and by the 1780s, the British appetite for tea and Chinese indifference to British goods had produced a trade deficit that the East India Company began to fill by supplying opium grown in British Bengal. It was a trade that greatly benefited the British exchequer, the merchants who traded it, the officials who grafted on it, the Chinese wholesalers who bought it and the foreign missionaries who travelled with it.”
New Book: The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011)
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources on the Opium War : Emperor of China’s War on Drugs Opioids.com ; Good Images from the Period on MIT’s Visualizing Cultures MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures and MIT’s Visualizing Cultures ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Opium War article homestead.com ; Books: China: Alive in the Bitter Sea by Fox Butterfield; China: A New History by John K. Fairbank; China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History by Charles O. Hucker; In Search of Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence; The Chan's Great Continent: China to Western Minds by Jonathan Spence (Norton, 1998). Sea of Poppies by Amitva Ghosh (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008) is a novel set during the Opium Wars mostly in India but also in China that was shortlisted listed for the Man Booker Prize.
Links in this Website: QING DYNASTY factsanddetails.com/china ; OPIUM WARS PERIOD factsanddetails.com/china ; OPIUM AND ILLEGAL DRUGSfactsanddetails.com : FOREIGNERS AND CHINESE IN THE 19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES factsanddetails.com/china ; factsanddetails.com/china ; EMIGRATION, BOXER REBELLIONS AND WARS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com/china ; EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI, LAST EMPEROR AND ATTEMPTED REFORMS factsanddetails.com/china ; SUN YAT-SEN AND ATTEMPTS AT CHINESE DEMOCRACYfactsanddetails.com/china ; WARLORDISM AND CHIANG KAI-SHEK factsanddetails.com/china
Foreigners in China: Tales of Old Shanghai earnshaw.com/shanghai-ed ;19th Century Tea Trade in China Harvard Business School ; Early Chinese Emmigrants to America: Brown Quarterly brownvboard.org ; Central Pacific Railroad Museum cprr.org/Museum ; Chinese Americans Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Taiping Rebellion: Taiping Rebellion.com taipingrebellion.com ; Taiping Rebellion article academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Wikipedia Taiping Rebellion article Wikipedia ; Books About Taiping Rebellion questia.com
Boxer Rebellion National Archives archives.gov/publications ; Modern History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall ; San Francisco 1900 newspaper article Library of Congress ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Cox Rebellion PhotosCaldwell Kvaran ; Eyewitness Account fordham.edu/halsall ; Sino-Japanese War.com sinojapanesewar.com ; Wikipedia article on the Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia ;
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) Brooklyn College site academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge chinaknowledge.de ; 5) China History Forum chinahistoryforum.com ; 6) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; 7 ) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia 20th Century History China History Virtual Library
China in the Early 19th Century
“By the nineteenth century, China was experiencing growing internal pressures of economic origin. By the start of the century, there were over 300 million Chinese, but there was no industry or trade of sufficient scope to absorb the surplus labor. Moreover, the scarcity of land led to widespread rural discontent and a breakdown in law and order. The weakening through corruption of the bureaucratic and military systems and mounting urban pauperism also contributed to these disturbances. Localized revolts erupted in various parts of the empire in the early nineteenth century. Secret societies, such as the White Lotus sect in the north and the Triad Society in the south, gained ground, combining anti-Manchu subversion with banditry. [Source: The Library of Congress]
“The Manchus were sensitive to the need for security along the northern land frontier and therefore were prepared to be realistic in dealing with Russia. The Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) with the Russians, drafted to bring to an end a series of border incidents and to establish a border between Siberia and Manchuria (northeast China) along the Heilong Jiang (Amur River), was China's first bilateral agreement with a European power. In 1727 the Treaty of Kiakhta delimited the remainder of the eastern portion of the SinoRussian border. Western diplomatic efforts to expand trade on equal terms were rebuffed, the official Chinese assumption being that the empire was not in need of foreign--and thus inferior--products. Despite this attitude, trade flourished, even though after 1760 all foreign trade was confined to Guangzhou, where the foreign traders had to limit their dealings to a dozen officially licensed Chinese merchant firms. [Ibid]
“Trade was not the sole basis of contact with the West. Since the thirteenth century, Roman Catholic missionaries had been attempting to establish their church in China. Although by 1800 only a few hundred thousand Chinese had been converted, the missionaries--mostly Jesuits--contributed greatly to Chinese knowledge in such fields as cannon casting, calendar making, geography, mathematics, cartography, music, art, and architecture. The Jesuits were especially adept at fitting Christianity into a Chinese framework and were condemned by a papal decision in 1704 for having tolerated the continuance of Confucian ancestor rites among Christian converts. The papal decision quickly weakened the Christian movement, which it proscribed as heterodox and disloyal. [Ibid]
China, National Humiliation and Foreigners
Suffering and humiliation at the hands of foreigners was a theme in Chinese history in the 19th century and 20th century. In the Opium Wars era, Britain subdued the Chinese population with Indian opium; made tons of money; and took over Chinese territory with humiliating unequal treaties. Later, the Russians and Japanese occupied the industrial north; European nations established "treaty ports" on the Chinese coast to exploit China's resources and labor; and, finally, Japan raped and pillaged China like medieval invaders before and during World War II. The Chinese describe their feelongs with the word guochi, or "the national humiliation."
In the early 19th century Napoleon said, "Let China sleep when she wakes the world will be sorry." At that time misery and rebellions caused by overpopulation and an inefficient dynasty resulted in famines and wars which left tens of millions dead. Foreigners were aware of the way China was being exploited. In 1900, the future Russian revolutionary leader, Vladamir Lenin, said, "The European governments have robbed China as ghouls rob copses." A descriptive 1898 French lithograph showed Queen Victoria of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the Japanese emperor Mutsuhito and Czar Nicholas II all sitting around a giant pie, inscribed with China, dividing it up with butcher knives.
China expert Orville Schell wrote, “The most critical element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s ‘humiliation’ at the hands of foreigners, beginning with its defeat in the Opium Wars in the 19th-century and the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants in America. The process was exacerbated by Japan’s successful industrialization, Tokyo’s invasion and occupation of the mainland during World War II, which in many ways was more psychologically devastating than Western interventions because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, where China had failed.”
“This inferiority complex has been institutionalized in the Chinese mind, “Orville wrote. “In the early 20th century China took up its victimization as a theme and, and it became a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity. A new literature arose around the idea of bainian guochi—‘100 year of national humiliation.’ After the 1919 Treaty of Versailles gave Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, the expression wuwang guochi—‘Never forget our national humiliation’—became a common slogan.”
The sports writer Tom Boswell said, “China’s whole history predisposes it to believing that foreign nations wish it ill and want to belittle it...Always sensitive to criticism from outsiders, China feels picked on.”
All of China’s leaders in the 20th century tapped into it. Sun Yat-sen described China in 1924 as “a heap of loose sand” that had “experienced several decades of economic oppression.” Chiang Kai shek spoke of the entire country for more than 100 years “suffering under the yoke of unequal treaties” and demanded the “national humiliation be avenged.” And when Communist China was founded in in 1949 Mao declared, “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.”
In 2001 the National People Congress proclaimed a ‘National Humiliation Day’ but because there were so many historical dates that could be used delegates could not agree on a single one.
Shu-Zen, the director of the film Dark Matter, told Schell, “There is something almost in our DNA that triggers automatic, and sometimes extreme , responses to foreign criticism or put downs.” The famous Chinese essayist Lu Xun wrote in the 1930s, “ Throughout the ages Chinese have had only one way of looking at foreigners. We either looked up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.”
Foreigners and Trade in the Opium Wars Era
As elsewhere in Asia, in China the Portuguese were the pioneers, establishing a foothold at Macao (Aomen in pinyin), from which they monopolized foreign trade at the Chinese port of Guangzhou (Canton). Soon the Spanish arrived, followed by the British and the French. Trade between China and the West was carried on in the guise of tribute: foreigners were obliged to follow the elaborate, centuries-old ritual imposed on envoys from China's tributary states. There was no conception at the imperial court that the Europeans would expect or deserve to be treated as cultural or political equals. The sole exception was Russia, the most powerful inland neighbor.
In 1636, King Charles I authorized a small fleet of four ships, under the command of Captain John Weddell, to sail to China and establish trade relations. At Canton the expedition got into a firefight with a Chinese fort. Other battles occurred after that. The British blamed the failure in part on their inability to communicate.
In 1820, China accounted for 29 percent of the world's gross domestic product and China and India together accounted for more than half of the world’s output. Foreigners thought they could get rich in China. There is a famous story about an 18th century Englishman who thought he could make a fortune in the textile business by convincing every Chinese person to extend the length of their shirt tails by one inch. A Harvard historian told Smithsonian magazine, “People signing on to voyages to Asia weren’t just looking to make a living, They were looking to make it big.”
Book: Opium Regimes, China, Britain and Japan, 1839-1952 edited by Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (University of California Press, 2002).
Trade in Canton
Up until the late 17th century, Western traders were allowed to conduct business only in Macau, a Portuguese enclave 75 miles south of Canton. In 1685, the powerful Qing emperor Kangxi was persuaded that he might profit from an expansion in trade and thus he permitted Western merchants to trade in Canton itself, which at that time was a bustling city along the Pearl River with about a million people.
Trade with Europe expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries. Favorable concessions were given to French and British traders, who set up shop on the East Coast of China. The reasoning was that if they were preoccupied with trade they would not cause mischief. Failure to keep pace with Western arms technology and the isolation of the Qing dynasty made it vulnerable to attacks from European weapons and exposed China to European expansion.
The lives of Western traders in Canton were greatly restricted. They could only come to Canton half of the year and then were forced to live in ghettos outside Canton's walls and were not permitted to bring their families (who were required to stay in Macau). They were also forbidden from boating on the river and trading with anyone other than authorized representatives of the Emperor, who tried to bilk the foreigners for everything he could get. The "foreign devils" worked out of offices called "factories" where the local people came by to stare at their big noses. Their vessels were required to anchor ten miles downstream on the Pearl River at Whampoa.
Tea became a major Chinese export product to Britain. The first tea arrived in London from China in 1652. By the late 18th century and early 19th century traders from newly industrialized Britain were importing millions of pounds of tea from China. They had hoped to trade finished goods such as textiles for tea and silk without having to go through the Emperors' greedy middlemen, but that didn't happen. Imperial China had no need for foreign products and they were importing virtually nothing from Europe. In an effort to get the Chinese Emperor to open up markets outside of Canton, British King George III, sent a regent to China that was welcomed with great ceremony but was told China has "no need of the manufactures of outside Barbarians."
. To remedy the situation, the foreigners developed a third-party trade, exchanging their merchandise in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and semiprocessed goods, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. By the early nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium from India had become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy. [Source: The Library of Congress]
Opium as a Medium of Exchange
The British East India Company built up a huge debt for silk, tea and lacquerware.The unfavorable balance of trade between Britain and China and resentment over China's restrictive trading practices set in motion the chain of events that led to the Opium Wars.
When the United Kingdom could not sustain its growing deficits from the tea trade with China (partially also because the Qing imperial court refused to open the Chinese market for British goods), it smuggled opium into China.
The British had few things that the Chinese wanted so opium, grown in India, was introduced as a new medium of exchange. Opium was the perfect commodity for trading. It didn't rot or spoil, it was easy to transport and store, it created its own market and it was highly profitable. The standard measurement for opium was a 135-pound chest, which sold for as much as a thousand silver dollars. The Chinese referred to opium as "foreign mud" or "black smoke" and sometimes called it yan, which entered the English language as "yen" ("a sharp desire or craving"). [in Chinese, opium has usually been called ya-pian, a transliteration. It was also called Afurung, another, more elegant transliteration, and dayen, big smoke. Yan is the Cantonese pronunciation of Mandarin yin, which means addiction, not opium. Mandarin yen means smoke, as in dayen. Different words.]
Opium in China
Opium was well known in China before the Opium Wars although its quality was inferior to the opium brought from India by the British. In the 1600s, the habit of smoking opium became popular in Formosa (now Taiwan) after Dutch sailors introduced tobacco smoking and residents of the island mixed tobacco and opium. The Formosans introduced the custom to the mainland, where tobacco was abandoned and opium was smoked alone.
Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “Opium had been consumed in China since the eighth century and several emperors had sung its praises. It began to be smoked with the introduction of tobacco in the late 16th century, turning its consumption from a medicinal to a social habit. By the 1830s, China was producing large quantities of opium domestically, though the imported drug was judged superior. The British traders argued, disingenuously no doubt, that they were merely supplying an existing demand, delivering the opium to a network of Chinese traders who distributed it across the empire. “[Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]
The British-supplied opium was very popular in China. Rich and poor Chinese alike gathered in opium dens called divans to smoke the dreamy drug, and millions of Chinese—government officials, merchants, court servants, sedan bearers—became addicted and subdued. During the next 50 years China’s annual opium imports increased from 75 tons to 900 tons (Chinese sources say that during the early years of the reign of Ch’ian Lung / Qianlong, no more than 200 cases of opium were imported annually. By 1830, 20,000 cases were imported annually, and by 1838, more than 40,000 cases). The opium trade significantly ate into the China's foreign trade reserves. By 1836, it transformed a huge trade surplus into a huge trade deficit.
Opium Business and China
In the late 18th century and early 19th century, opium was the world's largest traded commodity and Britain operated the world's largest drug cartel. The opium trade was dominated by the British East India Company, which oversaw the cultivation and processing of opium in India that was sold at auctions in Calcutta. About a six of India's revenues and much of the money for the Royal Navy came from the opium trade.
In spite the Emperor's objections to the business, the opium trade boomed in China. In 1773, the British unloaded 150,000 pounds of Bengal opium in Canton to pay off their foreign debt. By 1800, they were exporting 200,000 pounds of opium a year to China. The British justified their involvement in the opium trade by saying that they were only trying to meet demands for the drug in China and Chinese officials encouraged the business.
Opium was also brought to China by American ships from Turkey. Englishmen, Scotsman, Parsis in Indian and prominent families in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore all made fortunes off the opium trade. Ancestors of presidents Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt were partners in the United States's largest opium firm; and profits from the opium trade in the United States were reinvested in railroads and factories and used to finance universities and hospitals.
Opium Trade is Banned in China
Alarmed by the large amount of silver leaving the country, the Chinese Emperor banned the import of opium, but the edict was largely ignored by British and Chinese traders who had grown filthy rich from the trade and powerful enough to ignore the Emperor who rarely left the Forbidden Palace more than a 1,000 miles away from Canton in Beijing.
Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, ““When the indecisive and harassed Emperor Daoguang, himself a user when young, came to the crumbling Qing throne in 1820, he attempted to stamp out a habit that was all but universal. He was ostensibly moved by anxieties about a balance of payments deficit and a shortage of silver, both blamed on the opium trade, but Lovell argues that the trade also became the scapegoat for the many ills and rebellions that beset the empire. In December 1838, after years of debate and ineffective action, the emperor appointed Lin Zexu as commissioner in Canton with instructions to stamp it out. Within two months Lin had arrested 1,600 smokers and confiscated nearly 14 tonnes of opium. “ [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]
Chinese officials in Canton staged an elaborate charade to convince the Emperor they were doing everything in their power to halt the opium trade. When the opium was carried by British ships up the Pearl River to Canton from Linton Island, where it was stored in warehouses, Chinese navy junks pursued the British ships, making a big racket, firing their cannons and banging their war gongs, but rarely did much of anything to actually halt the British ships.
Beginning of the First Opium War
The First Opium War (1839-42) began in March 1839, when a Chinese representative of the emperor named Lin Zexu, ordered British merchants to stop trading opium "forever" and surrender "every article" of opium in their possession. The Chinese navy surrounded opium-carrying British ships near Canton, cutting off their food supply, while Lin prohibited all foreigners from leaving Canton, in effect holding them hostage, until the opium was turned over. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian magazine]
The British held off the Chinese for six weeks until British naval officer Charles Elliot advised the British merchants to hand over their entire inventory of opium, some 20,000 chests (2.7 million pounds, about 95 percent British and 5 percent American), telling them that the British government promised to reimburse them at the going prices. The merchants were willing to go along with the offer, figuring they would get their money and that a shortage would only boost the demand and the price of the drug.
When agreed to hand over the 20,000 chests while assuring the merchants that the British crown would make good the losses, he transformed dispute into an affair of state. Lin reported to the emperor that the matters were concluded satisfactorily. A few months later, somewhat to his surprise, the British gunboats arrived. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]
Elliot may have told the drug lords that the British government promised to reimburse them, but Chinese sources say that this was trickery. Evidently after their opium had been burned, the drug lords said Lin told them they would be reimbursed, but Lin never said such a thing. This was a pretext for demanding further concessions.
Commissioner Lin ordered the confiscated opium placed into basins dug at Humen Beach where it was spoiled with lime and left to wash out to sea. When Lin confiscated the opium at Humen, water was poured on it, then salt, and then lime, which caused it to ignite, so in Chinese, Lin is remembered for burning the opium, not just washing it to sea. June 3 is Forbidding Drug Day.
Lin also sent a letter to 20-year-old Queen Victoria. Part of it read: "We have heard that in your honorable barbarian country the people are not permitted to inhale the drug. If it is admittedly so deleterious, how can seeking profit by exposing others to its malefic power be reconciled with the decrees of Heaven?"
First Opium War Fighting
In July 1840 a fleet of British warships approached the southern coast of China, intent on avenging a series of insults and injuries inflicted on British subjects over the preceding months. The first battle lasted nine minutes.Lin let the British leave Canton, and Elliot, fearing more trouble, evacuated the foreign citizens of Canton 90 miles away to a strait known as Hong Kong ("Fragrant Harbor"). Lin, who supported trade with the West, with the exception of opium, was worried the foreigners were going to leave for good. In an effort to force the British to return to Canton, he sent his navy to Hong Kong with orders to open fire if necessary to bring the foreigners back.
The British and Chinese ships faced off near Hong Kong. Within an hour the small contingent of Chinese ships routed the 29 Chinese junks. Lin told the Emperor that the Chinese nearly won and he was honored for his bravery.
The British used the seizure of the opium as an excuse to start a war against China. British pursued war for two main reasons: 1) British merchants and farmers growing the opium in India were making heaps of money; 2) and China was easier to exploit and subdue if large numbers of its citizens were under the influence of the drug.
Unprepared for war and grossly underestimating the capabilities of the enemy, the Chinese were disastrously defeated, and their image of their own imperial power was tarnished beyond repair. British reinforcements from India arrived in June 1840. British gunboats---iron-hulled steamships and powerful cannons---attacked coastal cities and laid waste to important Chinese fortresses. The British seized control of Canton and the surrounding areas, killing thousands. After British gunships stormed up the Yangtze River and the British threatened to attack Nanjing and Peking, China surrendered. Reduced to an opium-addicted shell China was defeated by a few British cannon.
Chinese Perception of the First Opium War
According to one Chinese pamphlet: "Humen was the place where the Chinese people captured and burned the opium dumped into China by British and American merchants in the 1830s and it was also the outpost of the Chinese people to fight against the aggressive opium war. In 1839, Lin Zexu, the then imperial envoy of the Qing government...forced the British and American opium mongers to hand over 20,285 cases of opium...and burned all of them at Humen Beach...This just action showed the strong will of the Chinese people to resists imperialist aggression..."
According to another Chinese pamphlet: "No sooner had the British invaders landed on the western outskirts of Guangzhou on May 24, 1841 than they started to burn, slaughter and loot the people. All this aroused Guangzhou people's great indignation...On May 39, they lured British troops to the place called Niulangang where they used hoes, swords and spears as weapons and annihilated over 200 British invaders armed with rifles and cannons."
To mark the 156th anniversary of the starting of the Opium War in 1995, Lin Zexu was honored with the burning of 368 pounds of heroin, opium and morphine confiscated in drug busts in the previous five months.
"Unequal Treaties" After the Opium War
After the Chinese surrendered,the Treaty of Nanjing was signed on board a British warship by two Manchu imperial commissioners and the British plenipotentiary in August 1942. The first of several "unequal treaties," it that gave up the island Hong Kong to the British "in perpetuity," opened five ports to European trade, forced China to pay an indemnity of $21 million (around $500 million in today’s money and large sum for a largely impoverished country and bankrupt dynasty) and minimal tariffs on imported goods. It also forced China to continue accepting East India Company opium. The Qing Emperor at first refused to accept the Nanjing Treaty, but another British attack changed his mind. Further concessions were made after the second Opium War in 1860.
The Treaty of Nanjing also limited the tariff on trade to 5 percent ad valorem; granted British nationals extraterritoriality (exemption from Chinese laws). In addition, Britain was to have most-favored-nation treatment, that is, it would receive whatever trading concessions the Chinese granted other powers then or later. The Treaty of Nanjing set the scope and character of an unequal relationship for the ensuing century of what the Chinese would call "national humiliations." The treaty was followed by other incursions, wars, and treaties that granted new concessions and added new privileges for the foreigners.
One unequal treaty, which forced China to involuntarily open new "treaty ports" and pay further indemnities to European powers, was drawn up after China refused to apologize for a torn British flag. In the Convention of Peking in 1860 China opened up more ports to foreigners and paid more reparations and allowed British ships to carry indentured Chinese laborers (“coolies”) to the United States and legalized the opium trade.
Neither the Chinese emperor or Queen Victoria were happy about the outcome of the Opium War and the treaties. Elliot became the chargé d'affaires in the Republic of Texas and the Chinese official who negotiated the treaty was sent to Tibet.
Signing of Nanking Treaty
Second Opium War
The Second Opium War began on October 8, 1856 after Chinese officials searching for pirates arrested the crew of the British ship Arrow. The war ended in 1858 after British troops occupied Tianjin and Beijing, and French and British gunboats bombarded Tianjin fortresses until the Chinese signed the Treaty of Tianjin (1858).
During the second opium war, Hong Kong baker Cheong Ah Lum was accused of putting arsenic into his bread and poisoning 300 people to get even for injustices against the Chinese. Cheong was acquitted on lack of evidence but was deported to China.
A second opium war culminated in 1860 with the looting and burning of the imperial pleasure grounds, the Yuan Ming Yuan, in the northwest suburbs of Beijing by British and French troops.
Looting of the Summer Palace
In October 1860, after the Second Opium War officially ended, French and British troops went on the rampage and looted and burned down the Emperor's spectacular Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanmingyuan ("Garden of Perfect Brightness"), near Beijing. Every schoolchild in China knows the story as a symbol of the humiliation exacted on China by the colonial powers.
British-French forces razed the palace in retaliation for the execution of allied prisoners. After watching the looting of the Summer Palace, Captain Charles Gordon of the British army wrote, "You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the palaces we burnt."
Recounted in Chinese textbooks and in countless television dramas, the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, remains a crucial event epitomizing China’s fall from greatness. Begun in the early 18th century and expanded over the course of 150 years, the palace was a wonderland of artificial hills and lakes, and so many ornate wooden structures that it took 3,000 troops three days to burn them down. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 12, 2009]
The wound is still open and hurts every time you probe it, said Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer and a driving force in the movement to regain stolen antiquities. It reminds people what may come when we are too weak.
Perceptions of the Opium Wars in China
Lord Palmerton, Britain's foreign secretary at the time of the war said, "It would be called the Opium War because opium was the article of commerce that had caused it. But the war would not be fought over opium but over trade, the urgent desire of a capitalist, industrial, progressive country to force a Confucian, agricultural and stagnant one to trade with it."
Chinese have been humiliated and shamed by the Opium War for 150 years. "Whether we are from Hong Kong, China or Taiwan, I believe our viewpoint is the same—that the Opium War was not a trade war but an act of expansionism or militarism on the part of the British," one Hong Kong publisher told the Los Angeles Times. "It is like the Japanese saying their action in World War II were not aggression. For many Chinese, the wrongs of the Opium Wars were not righted until Hong Kong was handed over in 1997.
The Opium Wars are often used to illustrate imperialism at its very worst. The British, wrote historian Jack Keegan, found they could force unwanted opium on China, create a demand and back it up with the force of arms. This "inevitably leads the seller into imposing his political will on an unwilling buyer, and soon becoming a imperialist.” [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “For the British, the opium war defined the Chinese as decadent orientals, caricatured in popular fiction in the early 20th century. Their influence lingers in recurrent racist stereotypes as China's rise sets western nerves on edge."
Legacy of the Opium Wars in China
The Opium Wars mark the beginning of modern Chinese history. They deeply undermined the Emperor's authority and set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to the Qing Dynasty's collapse. They also brought about the decisive foreign occupation of China by foreign powers. The humiliating Treaty of Nanking forced China to expand trade opportunities and to cede territory to Britain.
To force the Chinese government to open China's doors for so-called ‘free trade’, other Western countries resorted to non-trade means, generally force, to achieve their goals. Consequently, China quickly fell from being a wealthy power to a semi-colonized country, and soon thereafter the economy almost totally collapsed while its market was flooded with goods and capital from the West. According to some historical data, in 1820, 20 years before the first Opium War, China's gross domestic product was 32.4 percent of the word figure, the richest country at that time.
After 1842, foreign merchants were allowed to live in treaty ports governed by their own laws. The five treaty ports were Canton, Amoy (Xiamen), Foochow (Fuzhou), Ningbo (Ningpo) and Shanghai. In 1858 ten more ports were opened to trade. Four more were opened in 1876.
The seizure and maintenance of Hong Kong was a key step in the expansion of the opium business. After the Opium Wars, the opium trade, with official but secret government support, rebounded with a vengeance. By the 1860s, 2,000 opium-carrying British vessels docked in Hong Kong each year. Even though the exporting of opium from India to China was banned in 1913, the trade continued.
European powers were able to defeat the Chinese easily during the Opium Wars, and later during the Boxer Rebellion, because they had superior weapons and machines, especially the formidable British gun boats.
Because Western military technology was far superior to their own, the Qing rulers had no choice but to kowtow to Britain and other European powers, who carved up spheres of influence and brought in troops to guard their territories, which not only included China but also Southeast Asia.
Remembering the Opium Wars in China
Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “In today's China, the opium war has been elevated to a national cause. For more than a century, the ruins of the Yuan Ming Yuan lay neglected. Today they sit in one of many memorials to the "century of national humiliation" constructed after the crushing of the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In that moment of national crisis the communist party's right to rule was challenged and its ideology discredited. The party's solution was to try to persuade its people that a party that had just turned its guns on the students was the sole defence against a west that had long conspired to sabotage China.” [Ibid]
“Much was made of the 150th anniversary of the war the following year. Scarcely mentioned in school text books until that point, the war became a narrative of heroic resistance to western imperialist aggression that led inevitably to socialism and communist party leadership. The Patriotic Education Campaign that followed had three key arguments: that China, with its long and unique history, was unready for democracy; that foreigners caused all its sufferings; and that only the party could save the nation. History remains, as the party defines it, a "meaningful security issue". “ [Ibid]
In 1997, during the handover of Hong Kong, the Opium War was remembered with an overproduced, $9.6 million film. Reportedly the most expensive mainland Chinese film made up until that time, it was shot in seven locations, used 20,000 sets of clothing, required 200 scene changes and employed 47 reconstructed ships. The film, The Opium War bombed at the box office. It was regarded as long and boring and it was outdrawn by a significant margin by Steven Spielberg's Lost World.
Around the time of 1997 handover of Hong Kong, the Opium Wars were also remembered with numerous documentaries, TV Quiz shows, books and even computer games that reexamined the Opium Wars from a "patriotic" perspective.
Opium War Review
The backcover of Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China by Julia Lovell reads: "(The Opium War’s) brutality notwithstanding, the conflict was also threaded with tragicomedy: with Victorian hypocrisy, bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past 170 years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding myth of modern Chinese nationalism: the start of China’s heroic struggle against a Western conspiracy to destroy the country with opium and gunboat diplomacy." [Source: Maitreya, Hidden Harmonies China Blog, July 30, 2012]
Maitreya wrote on the Hidden Harmonies China Blog: In her book Lovell argues that the Opium war is the “founding episode of modern Chinese nationalism” (which is the standard term specifically reserved to describe Chinese people’s love for their country i.e. patriotism). Lovell calls the Opium war a “useful episode” in Chinese history – and repeats the much ballyhooed assertion that it is used by the CCP to justify its rule. This “Opium war button” as she calls it, can apparently be pressed by the CCP at any time to “remind the Chinese people that the West has always been full of schemes to undermine China.” [Source:Maitreya, Hidden Harmonies China Blog, July 30, 2012]
Most Britishers have never heard of the Opium war. Those that have are largely limited to historians and academics. Among them, the simple reality of the Opium wars – that they were a blatant act of aggression by a European power on a defenseless Asian empire – are sidelined, and the only major aspect of the legacy of the war and the following century is just reduced to blind criticism of the CCP and its “patriotic education”. The usage of the century of humiliation by the CCP to “justify it’s own rule” is used as a smokescreen to deflect a balanced discussion about British atrocities and two-facedness. Julia Lovell, in this well-researched work that has been universally praised in the media, tries desperately to present this much-needed balanced view, and as those numerous praises would have us believe, largely succeeds, [Ibid]
Image Sources: 1) Smuggling ships, Columbia University; 2) Canton factories, Columbia University; 3) Opium wars fighting, Ohio State University; 4) Attack of clipper ships, Columbia University; 5) Treaty of Nanking, Ohio State University; 6) 19th century map of China, Columbia University.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012